Democracy as constraint

One common view of the nature of democracy is a system wherein a populace seeks to advance the common interest, either through direct participation in decision-making that affects everyone or through the election of representatives to do so. This view posits the existence of a universal interest that is beyond the sum of individual interests; the aim of government is to help to pull the reality of life closer to the kind of life that would be established through the realization of that universal good.

One major problem with this view is the possibility that, with a few exceptions, no such universal interest exists. We have a universal interest in not being exterminated, but it’s not clear that there is any such thing in the realm of social policy. An alternative view of the nature of democracy highlights its procedural characteristics, two of which I consider to be the most important: the division of power and oversight.

Democracy, viewed in this way, is a system of rules designed to limit the collection and arbitrary usage of power by individuals and groups. It recognizes the fundamental difficulty of this struggle, derived from the way in which most people given the opportunity to rule will try to use that power to perpetuate their influence. It likewise recognizes that authority in the absence of oversight leads inevitably to abuse, whether by corrupt politicians, unaccountable police, or an unconstrained army. The most important institutions within a democracy, then, are things like the rule of law, courts, regulatory bodies, a free press, and elections. The last of these serve less to select a group of representatives who have the right ideas about the universal good and more to rotate people often enough that they cannot escape the shackles that democracy is meant to impose upon them. When rulers do wriggle out of those bonds, the results are corruption, incompetence, and tyranny.

A procedural view of democracy does not assume the existence of a universal good – it just acknowledges that people have life projects of their own and, unconstrained, most are happy to trample all over the plans of others. The basic idea derives from the expression: “My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.” Unfortunately, plenty of people are happy to swing regardless. Only by constraining individuals in some ways – especially those in positions of power – can we have any hope of living our lives unmolested.

What, then, of social programs and all the efforts government makes to cajole and convince the populace of things? It is certainly possible that such cajoling can serve worthwhile ends, such as making people aware of previously unknown dangers. It can also serve far less universal ends: the promotion of the interests of one group through a devious appeal to a universal good. Arguably, much of politics is jostling between groups with narrow interests, seeking both to gain access to power and represent their personal interests as universal. This is exactly the kind of conduct a procedural democracy is meant to check: marrying empowerment within the sphere of individual agency with constraint in realms of inappropriate interference.

I am not willing to wholly disregard the possibility that democracies can develop projects based on the universal good, and perhaps even carry them out more effectively than other systems of government. What I am arguing is that such endeavours are a potentially valuable benefit of democracy, rather than its foundational justification. The aim is less to achieve the ‘best’ – a mode of thinking perhaps best suited to fascist states – but to moderate and avoid the worst. As such, when we abandon the principles of oversight and divided power, whether out of ambition or fear, we sacrifice a critical aspect of what it means to live in a democratic society.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

34 thoughts on “Democracy as constraint”

  1. You can’t disprove the existence of a universal interest because it isn’t defined as the lack of interests in opposition to it. In fact, if “universal interest” just meant particular interests held in common then it wouldn’t be universal at all, as the agreement that its “universality” was based on could be corrupted as soon as one person’s interest changed.

    The notion of a “universal interest” is not so strange, it’s really of the same kind as having an individual interest, as opposed to having a belief about an individual interest. I might believe my interest is X, but due to reasons I don’t understand, my interest is actually not X.

    Similarly, a group might have a universal interest which was not known to its majority. Discerning what the interest is is not an ontological problem about “whether or not are there universal interests”, it’s an epistemic problem, “what are the universal interests, or can we even know them”.

    Certainly we can know them, but only in privation. In the double sense that we might be wrong about them, and even if we are right about them we are likely only partially right. So the problem is really, “to what extent can we know the universal interest”

    There is an interesting outcome of this logical: Who is best suited to know the universal interest? And to act on it? Certainly someone who’s power is not limited by arbitraryness. For example, you wouldn’t want the prime minister to be able to be arbitrarily dismissed by a King who can dissolve the duma whenever he wants at his particular will. On the other hand, you wouldn’t want mass elections because those are subject to manafacturing the consent of the population.

    The purpose of this example is to show that democracy in the exact same way as monarchy, imposes arbitrary conditions on those in power which prevent them from being able to concern themselves with the universal interest. So both require checks with the same goal in mind.

  2. Another problem with not grounding democracy on universal interests, it means that if everyone shares a particular interest, there is no principle by which we can say that interest is wrong or ill eagle.

    For example, I think it’s wrong to deny the vote to voters who refuse to show their faces. Even if everyone in some country thought it was fine to do this, it would still be wrong, in my view. If I can’t appeal to universal interests, it’s unclear how I can defend my moral view as a political imperative.

  3. Humans, said Edmund Burke,

    … are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites…. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.

  4. Your ‘the worst of all political systems, except for all the other ones’ justification of democracy, whilst it may be a perfectly good justification of democracy – it’s not the one I favour, but it does seem to be broadly correct; cf. Sen’s work on how there are no famines in democracies, the rough truth that people in democracies tend to be better off and freer and so on – is not however one which can really be understood as being opposed to a justification on universal interest. The reason it makes sense to say that democracy does pretty well compared to other political systems is that it delivers the goods. But if it is a justification that it delivers the goods, then those goods had better actually be good for everyone. If they are good for everyone, then they presumably satisfy an interest everyone has; a universal interest, even. A really procedural – as opposed to outcome focused – defence of democracy would appeal to the fairness of its decision rule, which grants everyone an equal say in the political rules that bind them. Of course, there’s then the question of how we justify importance of that piece of fairness as opposed to the fairness that would follow from, say, giving everyone an equal chance of having the title of world heavyweight boxing champion. But that’s a difference question.

    Also, common and universal interests are not the same. Common interests are shared amongst some set. My friends and I have a common interest in choosing a restaurant to go to this evening. Universal interests are a subset of common interests, where the set amongst which the interests are shared includes everyone (in some sense). A demos can then have common interests without those being universal interests. For example, all the members of some state may have an interest in not being invaded. No claim that that is a common interest implies that everyone in the world shares that interest.

  5. The real tragedy of the silence from Denver on the Constitution is that it reinforces the most pernicious lie of the past eight years: that the rule of law is a luxury, not a necessity. Time and again when called to explain the decision to allow torture, strip detainees of the right to habeas corpus, or spy on innocent Americans, Bush administration officials have hit us with the great gooey lie that we cannot afford such niceties in dangerous times. It’s a colossal hoax. The Constitution was written for dangerous times. But to hear them speak in Denver, we can’t afford to talk about the Constitution in economic downturns, either.

  6. “The government consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have, taking one with another, no special talent for the business of government; they have only a talent for getting and holding office.”

    H. L. Mencken

  7. The most reliable predictor of which party will find itself enmeshed in scandal is which one is in power.

    I’ve always called elections the opportunity to throw the bums out and throw a new set of bums in,” says Larry Sabato, political analyst and prognosticator extraordinaire of the University of Virginia. “Partisans never believe that. They think their side is golden and the opposition is a bunch of second cousins to Beelzebub.”

    Politicians in power compromise themselves more frequently because they have more opportunities to compromise themselves. The only reason Blagojevich could put Obama’s seat up for sale was because he was governor. And the longer a party is in power, the more time it has to get comfortable and screw up—hence the backlog of GOP misconduct in 2006, after 12 years dominating Congress.

  8. “Citizens plainly like to vote. Even the most authoritarian leaders now feel obliged to hold elections. Presidents Bashir and Mugabe, as well as Meles Zenawi, the prime minister of Ethiopia—none of them natural democrats—have all had to hold elections in recent years. Only a decade ago countries such as Sierra Leone and Liberia were bywords for anarchy and bloodshed. Now their people vote enthusiastically. It will be hard even for dictators to take that right away altogether, for the experience of elections, even flawed ones, seems to help embed democracy. Ghana, for instance, which reverted to civilian rule only in 1992, has twice changed governments after tight elections. This month the incumbent in Somaliland, a nation-in-waiting, conceded electoral defeat. In Nigeria the ruling party, despite efforts to snuff out democracy, is having to concede improvements that should make for a better vote next year.

    Outsiders can help the process along. Among Africans, there needs to be a revival of the healthy peer pressure that was around in the early 2000s. The West needs to protest about bad elections to encourage Nigerians, Sudanese and others fighting for clean ones. The millions it spends monitoring elections are wasted if its criticism is muted by its interest in keeping in with an important government, as critics claim happened after Nigeria’s rotten election in 2007.”

  9. “The Sri Lanka described in the revised charter is not a pretty place. It is one where the forms of parliamentary democracy are preserved but the substance has become subordinated to almost untrammelled presidential power. With the opposition divided, his rival in the presidential election in January in detention and his popularity still high, President Mahinda Rajapaksa already seems monarch of all he surveys.

    The amendment changes the constitution in two main ways. The first is to remove the bar on the president’s serving more than two six-year terms. First elected president in 2005, and then re-elected with a thumping majority in January, Mr Rajapaksa has in fact not even started his second term. But he seems to be settling in for the long haul.

    As government spokesmen have pointed out, however, Sri Lanka’s voters will at least have the chance to turf him out in six years’ time. That is why it is the second change that is more pernicious. It is (such is the way of descriptive constitutions) to overturn the 17th amendment. This was an admittedly muddled attempt to curb the powers of the “executive presidency”, partly through a “constitutional council”. After the latest change, the constitution will both grant the president immunity and also give him final authority over all appointments to the civil service, the judiciary and the police. He is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Almost the only formal constraint on him—electoral considerations aside—is an obligation to show up in parliament once a quarter.

  10. Putin’s clumsily announced but not unexpected decision to have himself re-elected to the presidency provides a clue about the way the system works, or rather doesn’t. If you take it that a credible succession formula is one of the key components of any political system, Putin’s stage-managed self-coronation makes it clear that Russia doesn’t have one. To leave the decision about one’s successor to the unpredictable outcome of a genuinely competitive election is acceptable only when incumbents don’t expect to lose too much if they lose. In established democracies, soft landings await electorally ousted politicians. In non-democratic systems, former rulers can sidestep unwelcome surprises if the succession process is managed by a core group within a ruling party, as in the Soviet Union after Stalin and in China today. But this alternative is not available in Russia. For one thing, the increasingly unpopular Yedinaya Rossiya is not an organised governing party but a ramshackle vote-rigging machine run by Putin loyalists and opportunists whom no one, least of all Putin, would trust to choose the country’s next ruler.

  11. Another non-voting aspect of democracy that doesn’t necessarily get the attention it deserves is the importance of forthright and honest communication.

    Many democratic institutions depend on people being honest about their views and the motivations for their actions. When people choose to be dishonest – or they are forced to be dishonest in order to maintain their positions – it is corrosive to democratic systems of government.

    That’s one reason why the censorious impulses of some governments – and their intolerance of dissent – are worrisome.

  12. Department of Political Science – Book Launch

    Richard Simeon

    (Professor Emeritus, Dept. of Political Science, Faculty of Law and Professor, School of Public Policy & Governance)


    Patti Tamara Lenard

    (Assistant Professor, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa)

    Imperfect Democracies

    The Democratic Deficit in Canada and the United States

    Friday, October 26th, 2012

    2:00 – 4:00 p.m. in 3037 SSH (light refreshments will be served)

  13. “The legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin wrote in 1970, ‘The language of rights now dominates political debate in the United States… It is not surprising that these questions are now prominent. The concept of rights, and particularly the concept of rights against the Government, has its most natural use when a political society is divided, and appeals to co-operation or a common goal are pointless.'”

    Smiley, Donald. “A Dangerous Deed: The Constitution Act, 1982” in Banting, Keith and Richard Simeon eds. And No One Cheered: Federalism, Democracy & The Constitution Act. (Methuen, Toronto). 1983. p.80 (hardcover)

  14. “BUT I’ve won three elections!” Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s embattled prime minister, growls at his critics. On the face of it, his case is compelling: surely, many people in Turkey and beyond would agree, popularly elected leaders can govern as they please? That’s what democracy means.

    Well, no. Majoritarianism—the credo of an expanding group of elected but autocratic rulers around the world, which holds that electoral might always makes you right—is not true democracy, even if, on the face of it, the two things look alike. It is worth explaining why.

    The basic idea of a democracy is that the voters should pick a government, which rules as it chooses until they see fit to chuck it out. But although voting is an important democratic right, it is not the only one. And winning an election does not entitle a leader to disregard all checks on his power. The majoritarian world view espoused by Mr Erdogan and leaders of his ilk is a kind of zombie democracy. It has the outward shape of the real thing, but it lacks the heart.

  15. Democracy as we know it, the democracy invented in the 18th century, was never about everyone being equal. It is about getting rid of bad leaders peacefully, and hopefully arriving at better ones, more closely aligned with the people, committed to serving them better.

  16. Democracy is the process by which people choose the man who’ll get the blame.

    – Bertrand Russell (@B_RussellQuotes)

  17. SIR – At times your essay treated liberal and democratic values as identical, at others it silently recognised a clash. Liberalism and democracy are distinct, as Joseph Schumpeter and Friedrich Hayek richly understood. Liberalism is about how people are to be shielded from undue power, be it political, economic or social. Democracy is about who belongs in that happy circle of voice and protection.

    Schumpeter and Hayek grasped that voter democracy was commonly at odds with economic prosperity. Both sought ways to insulate economic decision-making from popular pressure. Frank acknowledgment of the tensions between liberalism and democracy could have unknotted some of your article’s odder puzzles: free and fair elections welcomed on one page, pressure-group politics and voter short-termism reprobated on the next; empowering technocrats when they limit spending, tut-tutting when they draft a European currency.

    Liberalism is a doctrine of limits. One of its lessons is that not all political goodies—freedom, equality, prosperity, for example—need be simultaneously achievable. In the democratic marketplace, that lesson is a hard sell. Ought not The Economist, which is impeccably liberal, be more forthright and tough it out?

    Edmund Fawcett

  18. “Liberal” in the vocabulary of Mr Fawcett, for many years on the staff of The Economist, does not mean Democratic in the American sense, fanatically free-market in the French, or bearded and sandals-wearing in the British. Instead liberalism is a protean set of beliefs—in progress, scepticism towards authority and respect for individuals—that have been central to the formation of modern Western democracy. Neither is Mr Fawcett setting out to write directly about today. Instead, he traces the evolution of liberalism from its roots in the Enlightenment. The result is a scrapbook, assembled out of thumbnail biographies and historical vignettes, interleaved with philosophical argument and snippets of economics. Mr Fawcett’s erudition and his voluminous list of sources attest to a lifetime’s engagement with liberalism, both in the academy and at the hustings.

  19. But there is a body of academic work that supports the idea that elections often misfire. For one thing, voters can be capricious. In a recent book, “Democracy for Realists”, Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels recount how people in New Jersey were significantly less likely to vote to re-elect President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 if they lived near the sites of recent shark attacks. By the same token, voters seem to punish politicians for floods and droughts, but instead of seeking candidates who plan to spend more time or money preparing for such calamities, they simply unseat the incumbent. They are also myopic, judging politicians’ economic management on the basis of only the very recent past. Their opinions can fluctuate wildly, depending on how questions are asked. Before the Gulf war of 1991, almost two-thirds of Americans said they were willing to “use military force”, but less than 30% wanted to “go to war”.

    Messrs Achen and Bartels also show that many people neither follow politics closely nor scrutinise policy carefully. Voters do not always understand the politics of different parties: in Germany, only half of them can place “Die Linke” (“the Left”) on the left-right scale. Many do not even know who represents them: in 1985 only 59% of American voters could say whether the governor of their state was a Democrat or a Republican. The authors present compelling evidence that voters tend to pick a candidate first, then bring their policy views into line with their choice. That is true, they argue, of both educated and uneducated voters.

    There is a long intellectual tradition which argues that voters should never be presented with such questions. Indeed, representative democracy is predicated on the idea that many have neither the time nor the inclination to wrestle with the details of policymaking. James Madison, one of America’s Founding Fathers, and Edmund Burke, his philosophising contemporary, argued for a “trustee” model, whereby voters elect politicians to make difficult decisions for them. In the 20th century Joseph Schumpeter argued, more bluntly, that policy should be left to those with the time and skill to get it right. The role of voters is to throw the rascals out if they sense things are going wrong.

  20. “Supporters of the idea of public justification see democratic politics not so much as a battle for power, settled by elections, but rather as a kind of public conversation about issues of common concern, with a decision-making procedure for reaching temporary closure on these issues when the time for action has come. When we take part in this conversation, we seek to justify our views to others, and in so doing we should acknowledge the fact of political and religious pluralism. We should show that we recognize that we live in a community with a diversity of political and religious views. Hence we should offer reasons that can appeal to all, not only to other members of our own community of belief. Otherwise there can be no public conversation that embraces the entire society; we are implicitly dividing society into separate communities that do not seek to persuade each other.”

    Singer, Peter. The President of Good & Evil: Questioning the Ethics of George W. Bush. 2004. p.103 (paperback)

  21. Campaign choices matter, but political science research suggests that the lay of the electoral land is largely shaped by factors beyond candidates’ control. People vote retrospectively, based on their perception of how things are going for them and those around them. But their perceptions are shaped by all sorts of things. As Christopher Achen, of Princeton University, and Larry Bartels, of Vanderbilt University, describe in Democracy for Realists, a book published earlier this year, voters sometimes punish politicians for bad weather, random misfortunes—an outbreak of shark attacks appears to have cost Woodrow Wilson votes in the 1916 election—and the performance of the local American football team.

    Perhaps more importantly, voters are extremely myopic. They care about their economic welfare, and especially about whether or not their incomes are growing. In making this judgment, however, the months immediately prior to the election are critical. Messrs Achen and Bartels reckon that few variables matter anywhere near as much as growth in disposable personal income, adjusted for inflation, in the six months prior to election day. Indeed, they note, just two variables—short-run income growth and the tenure of the incumbent party—represent the most reliable predictors of the incumbent party’s vote share

  22. The 20th century was an age of increasing democratisation as well. But Mr Scheidel sees this as another consequence of its total wars. He follows Max Weber, one of the founders of sociology, in seeing democracy as a price elites pay for the co-operation of the non-aristocratic classes in mass warfare, during which it legitimises deep economic levelling. Building on work by Daron Acemoglu and colleagues, Mr Scheidel finds that democracy has no clear effect on inequality at other times. (A nice parallel to this 20th-century picture is provided by classical Athens, a democracy which also saw comparatively low levels of income inequality—and which was also built on mass-mobilisation, required by the era’s naval warfare.)

  23. Until his political advent, norms were rarely discussed outside academic circles. Americans took them for granted. These days Trump-worriers debate them endlessly. “Like oxygen or clean water, a norm’s importance is revealed by its absence,” write two Harvard professors, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in a new book, called “How Democracies Die”. They consider two norms most important. One is mutual tolerance, or a willingness to accept competitors as legitimate rivals. The other is forbearance, or an acceptance by politicians of the need to exercise their powers judiciously, to avoid needless confrontation.

  24. “One problem is that rulers, who have the power to shape economic institutions, do not necessarily find it in their interest to allow their citizens to thrive and prosper. They may personally be better off with an economy that imposes lots of restrictions on who can do what (that they can selectively relax to their advantage), and weakening competition may actually help them stay in power. This is why political institutions matter—they exist to prevent leaders from organizing the economy for their private benefit. When they work well, political institutions put enough constraints on rulers to ensure that they cannot deviate too far from the public interest.”

    Banerjee, Abhijit V. and Esther Duflo. Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. Hachette; New York. 2011. p. 238

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